The unique function of the heart in TCM 中医心脏之独特功能

Updated: Feb 28


As discussed in a previous article (Why are organs in TCM described so differently?), the organs in TCM are often described very differently from those in modern science, but both may sometimes bear resemblances.

In this article, we share about the functions of the heart in TCM and the biggest difference between the heart in TCM and the heart as described in modern biology.

1) Blood circulation


In both TCM and modern biology, the heart is involved in the circulation of blood around the body. Just like other organs in TCM, the functions or properties of the heart are described using terms such as Qi, Blood, Yin, Yang etc. One’s heart beat and blood circulation can be normal when there is sufficient Qi and Blood in the heart, balanced Yin and Yang in the heart, and no blockages in the blood vessels.

Health Conditions

Some imbalances such as insufficient Qi in the heart, insufficient Yang energy in the heart, blockage in the heart etc., may cause palpitations, stuffiness in the chest or even chest pain. However, not all imbalances in the Yin, Yang, Qi and blood of the heart will lead to the cardiac problems known in modern science. This is because the heart has another function in TCM, as described below.

2) “Spirit" (Mind)

The biggest difference between the heart in TCM and the heart in modern science is the association of “Spirit” with TCM’s heart. The “spirit” in TCM refers loosely to one’s consciousness, mind, mental state, psychology, thoughts, emotions, intentions, self-awareness, ability to give appropriate responses etc.

Heart vs Brain

It may initially seem strange that these aspects are attributed to the heart instead of the brain. However, a closer look at the Chinese language will reveal that the Chinese character for “heart” (心) has always been used to refer to one’s mind and emotions (see below).

Think 心想 Psychology 心理学 Psychological disorder 心理障碍 Wicked 心毒 Frustrated 心烦 Good-hearted 心地善良 Intentions 心意 Peace at heart 安心 Relax / Assured 放心 Happy 开心 Sad 伤心 Worry 担心 Careful 小心 Careless 粗心

It is no wonder that TCM, which is deeply rooted in Chinese culture, refers to the heart in the same way.

Health Conditions of the "Heart Spirit"

Several health problems related to the mind or nervous system, such as depression, anxiety, mental disorders, emotional disorders, behavioral disorders, or even certain speech problems may be attributed to imbalances in the TCM heart.

Acupuncture or herbs that help to balance the heart and calm the spirit may help in the treatment of such problems. Mental and emotional support from friends, family and the physician are important as well. The heart spirit is also involved in one’s sleep and everyday mood. Therefore, many cases of insomnia and constant frustration may also be attributed to disturbances of the heart spirit. These cases can also be well managed with herbs and acupuncture.

Importance of staying happy

In TCM, it is said that too much negative emotions, or extremes of any one emotion can disturb the heart spirit, which may consequently lead to the health issues described above.

Today, it is evident that negative emotions burden our mind and are clearly not healthy for anyone. Not only can negative emotions impede our productivity at work and our daily lives, they may also lead to other further problems in the long run.

To ensure a healthy heart spirit (or a healthy mind), it is important to maintain a positive outlook and stay cheerful. Whether you look at it from a TCM’s or modern science's perspective, staying happy can reap great benefits for one’s physical health.